“Be lousy” was the clue in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle, and the correct solution was SUCK. Some linguistic purists raised eyebrows at the inclusion of this word in a popular daily puzzle that may be attempted by staid Presbyterian preachers, precocious third-graders, or prim maiden aunts. Its presence in a usually G-rated puzzle struck some critics as jarring—for a journal that regards any words that whiff of impropriety as not fit to print. But is the root of suck, when used to denote something undesirable, a reference to bodily functions best left unmentioned at the breakfast table—or did it originate in something quite innocuous?
The basic meaning of the word suck is to “draw liquid into the mouth through a vacuum created by moving the lips and tongue.” It ultimately comes from Latin sugere, via Old High German, Old English (sūcan), and Middle English (suken). Babies do it with milk, bees with nectar, and vampires with blood. The word is believed to be imitative, a re-creation of of the sound made when sucking. It’s been around in English since at least the ninth century.
British schoolchildren have used the phrase “sucks to you” as a term of contemptuous dismissal since the nineteenth century. The origin of that phrase is thought to stem from “go suck an egg.”
The first usage of suck to mean “be contemptible” or “be undesirable” has been traced by the Online Etymology Dictionary to 1971. There are several theories as to its origin.
One possibility is that it means simply to “suck the joy out of something.” Another is that it comes from the phrase often used by farmers to indicate something inferior: “it sucks hind teat,” referring to the position on the mother’s udder to which the runt of a litter of pigs is usually relegated. Some wordsmiths believe suck originated as a term among jazz musicians to indicate an inferior horn player who sounded as if he was sucking on his instrument rather than blowing.
There is, however, general agreement among etymologists that suck owes its usage as a derogatory term to a sexual connotation. The word was first used to refer to oral sex in 1928. Despite its seeming history, most etymologists also agree that over the years suck has lost its connection to a sex act and today, while it still may be slightly vulgar in polite usage, it is not regarded as obscene.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is almost always regarded as obscene, not only in his execrable verses, but also in his personal habits, of` which the less said the better.
To read the failing New York Times
Some think would be the worst of crimes.
They scan the paper’s Op-Ed pages
And find opinions quite outrageous.
Then, to hold on to their sanity,
They turn to pseudo-news from Hannity.